After much crying and feeling sorry for ourselves back in April thanks to the killjoy of volcano ash that cancelled our holiday plans to Portugal, my mother and I finally managed to dry our eyes and take our long awaited trip together to the land of the best custard tarts (‘pastéis de nata’) in the world.
The original and best pastéis de nata
I openly admit with little shame that my main purpose for travel is almost entirely centred around food and drink. When I’m finished with the first meal, I try and fill the hours with sightseeing until I can reasonably move onto the next gastronomic adventure. I plan, sometimes days in advance, what I will have and where in an effort to try and taste as many local delicacies as possible. I end up hungover and several pounds heavier at the end of each trip, but it’s all worth it.
A seafood feast at the famous Restaurante Mar do Inferno (Sea of Hell) in Cascais
Knowing a few of the locals always helps. In Portugal’s case, I am fortunate to have two dear friends, Martim and Elina, who live in Cascais, a stunning seaside town outside of Lisbon. Thanks to them and their generous parents, I have tried lots of traditional Portuguese treats on my trips to see them. Not surprisingly, centring every trip around wine is also one of the main goals. This one was no exception, and in fact rather nicely, most of the work was done for me. Martim’s father Miguel just so happened to be friends with the owner of the large, widely respected Jose Maria da Fonseca winery (whose wines Miguel had sent me home with when I last visited and I’d loved). So knowing what a wine nut I was, Miguel kindly arranged a private tour of Fonseca’s grounds–including tastings of some pretty special wines–led by the seventh generation of the Fonseca dynasty herself, Sofia Soares Franco. I told you it helps to know a few locals…
Jose Maria da Fonseca (or JMF as they like to be called) is a huge producer with over 30 different brands. They have vineyards all over Portugal including in Douro, Alentejo, and Setúbal (their home and where we visited, just a short drive from Lisbon). They’ve been a family run company for nearly 200 years.
We were first shown around by a lovely tour guide (I sadly didn’t get her name) who regaled us with many stories about the history of the winery, but also showed us JMF’s ‘show vineyard’, put there to demonstrate to certain foreign tour groups where wine comes from (and that no, rosè does NOT actually come from roses…).
JMF's 'show' vineyard, still a baby
Next stop was the tóneis room. Tóneis are giant barrels and in JMF’s case they’re made from mahogany shipped from Brazil and Africa. The tóneis are over 100 years old and can’t be replaced since much of the wood comes from the diminishing rainforests which are now highly protected. JMF uses mahogany because is imparts little to no oak flavours onto the wine and has an extremely long life span. Part of their wine spends some time in new French and American oak barrels after being aged in the tóneis to pick up some structure and oaky notes.
The biggest tóneis holds 20,900 litres of wine. Now that's a lot of booze!
When it’s time for a new batch, men actually climb into those holes in the bottom of the tóneis (or are pushed in by their feet) with a scrub brush and clean the inside of the barrels. Not recommended for claustrophobics!
We were passed on to Sofia who took us down the road to the actual winery (where the magic really happens!). We were lucky enough to be there at harvest time and so got to witness some Arinto grapes being dropped off.
I was pleasantly surprised to hear that JMF, like many wineries in Portugal, still crush the grapes in lagars with their feet–how quaint!
JMF has one of the most high-tech wineries in Europe
Eventually we got to the best part: tasting the stuff!
I liked several of their reds although they all needed some ageing to soften them up. My favourite however was their premium red, the Hexagon 2003. A blend of 6 grapes, its tannins were already soft and supple. Loads of blackberry, slightly raisined fruit on the nose and palate interwoven with tobacco and chocolate throughout made this wine go down all too easily.
JMF also makes several kinds of fortified Muscatel including one from the rare red muscat grape (which I discovered in Croatia as well). In fact it seems their Muscatel is always fortified, and with wonderful results. My mom and I ended up purchasing one that was fortified with Armagnac brandy and was a confusing but wonderful mix of spirit and wine.
Their shining star of a dessert wine was of course the one that was far out of my price range. And the price tag was understandable, for the Trilogia (pictured above) is a blend of three of JMF’s best vintages of the 20th century: 1900, 1934, and 1965. That’s some seriously old wine in that little bottle!
It was rich and intensely raisined. JMF’s website recommends having it with a good cigar. A special occasion wine indeed!
A special ‘obrigada’ to Sofia and the lovely crew at Jose Maria da Fonseca. If you’re ever in the Lisbon area, I highly recommend a tour of their beautiful grounds, and of course a taste of their delicious wines.
And so my mother and I finally got to take our Portuguese holiday together, and as always, I rolled home several pounds heavier, and with a semi-permanent headache. Worth it? Of course it was.